Fieldwork in Smoky Mountain National Park

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 in Blog

Once you’ve hiked the rugged mountains of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and have photographed the wildlife that brings life to these incredible mountains and valleys, it’s hard to imagine experiencing the incredible scenery and grandeur that Yellowstone and the Tetons have to offer any place else.

I took over 450 photos of this bull moose in the Tetons National Park and a few hundred photos of mountain goat in Glacier National Park.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that subject matter and ideas for wildlife paintings can come from far and near –our local parks and even your own back yard. I have a huge collection of reference photos of whitetail deer, turkey, song birds, owls, hawks and the occasional bald eagle and osprey that I’ve photographed here on our property in Hillsborough, NC.

I photographed this barred owl and this whitetail fawn from my deck. On average we have 4–6 fawn on our property each spring, and while they are skittish, set up and timing pay off.

Over the years I have hiked and camped in the unique and scenic mountains of North Carolina from Linville Gorge to Mt Mitchel, to Maggie Valley and Cataloochee, and this November, I have finally made a trip to photograph the streams, rivers and waterfalls and of course the wildlife of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans across the borders of both North Carolina and Tennessee with over 520,000+ acres of old growth forests, wildflowers that bloom year-round, and streams, rivers and waterfalls along many of the hiking trails that include a segment of the Appalachian Trail.

Early morning and evening light offer the most dramatic lighting and are when most wildlife is active, increasing your chances of capturing that special moment when animal and environment are giving it up for you.

Viewing wildlife in any of our parks is challenging, but this park offers some open areas like Cade’s Cove for some of the best opportunities to view whitetail deer, coyote, and black bear.

I photographed wild turkey throughout the park including the Little River Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

I photographed this black bear along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. While there is an estimated black bear population of over 1,500, the park is densely forested and they are a challenge to spot. Smoky Mountain black bear are smaller than black bear elsewhere, averaging 125 lbs–225 lbs.

I photographed a series of shots of this whitetail buck in Cades Cove as it ran through the golden rod from atop a hillside and leaped across the road right in front of our truck.

My wife Jacqui and I hiked to some great waterfalls including Abrams Falls and Grotto Falls which require a bit more strenuous hike on trails that aren’t traveled by everyone who visit the park. Getting off the roads and avoiding short moderate trails does pay off. Look for interesting lighting, dramatic shadows and photograph from different angles of view and vantage points.

Abrams falls is located in Cades Cove and the 5.2-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls is considered to be moderate in difficulty. I’d say it kicked our butts, but worth the push!

Grotto Falls is located off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and is a scenic and fairly easy 2.6 mile round-trip hike in. Time it right—early morning to beat the crowds is best.

In addition to our many hikes, we drove the 6-mile one-way scenic loop of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and drove the 25 miles of the winding Little River Road and explored the meadows, rivers and streams that Cades Cove has to offer, all accessed from the 11-mile one-way driving loop.

We took time to check out and photograph some of the preserved churches, cabins, farmhouses, and barns of the mountain people who began settling there in the late 1700 and 1800s.

Once you have a collection of photo reference that either inspires you or meets the specific need of your next design, determine your subject, think about lighting, shadow and contrast to create a dramatic wildlife painting. Be selective to identify the right behavior and movement for your concept and let that help guide your decisions for composition and design.

As a realist painter, my paintings are dependent on my research and accurate portrayal of the wildlife that I choose to paint. I photograph and sketch all of the scenery and subject matter in my paintings and my designs are always a composite of several references.

1 Comment

  1. Curt Boyce
    November 15, 2016

    Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed viewing your photos and especially like the grizzly in progress. We all missed you at the GSK show this year.

    My wife and I also found hiking in the Tetons to be exceptional. Unlike you however, we turned around after 3 or 4 miles because we DIDN’T want to meet a bear.

    Keep up the good work,